This might be the best sequel I’ve ever seen.
Neo: The World End with You is an action RPG and the sequel to The World Ends with You, one of those cult classic games that nobody expected to be big but which was really popular. The sequel was a long time coming and it’s well worth it.
This review is going to have spoilers for Neo: The World Ends with You, which has a pretty fun plot with some good twists in it, so if you’re going to play it, you should probably stop three paragraphs in if you can.
The premise is the same as the first game: super trendy teenagers in Tokyo’s Shibuya district die and have to play the Reaper’s Game with a bunch of other dead people for the right to come back to life, and they discover the game is rigged against them and have to rebel against the whole system, which is sort of a stand-in for capitalist neoliberalism, but only a superficial one. The game stars Rindo, an anxious kid who can’t make decisions, and his friends as they try to survive the afterlife and save Shibuya.
The first game is broken into three parts. The first part is about ten hours long and establishes all the rules of the game and the in-universe Game. The second part is a little longer and starts to break the rules, and the third part basically totally deconstructs the premise as its established in the first part, revealing that the whole concept of the Game is unfair. This game follows that up by letting the player know from the start that the premise is fucked. Normally when the characters don’t know something but the player does it’s a bit tedious, but the, I guess it’s irony, here is pretty well done. The least interesting character from the first game, rebel reaper Sho Minamimoto, comes back in this game and is pretending to be a player, and the game doesn’t hide that he’s up to something again (it’s basically the same thing he was up to in the last game, but now we’re pretending he’s an antihero instead of a villain even though he full-on tried to kill God and trigger the apocalypse in the last game so he could be God, but he’s popular so we’re just laughing that off I guess). So you know from the beginning that the game is fucked because of the existence of this character, and I think it’s a really good use of him, if he has to be in it again.
Though it is a sequel, the game does assume you’ve played the first game. I have, so I can’t say whether it’s really comprehensible if you haven’t played it. I feel like it mostly is, though a lot of characters from the first game show up at the end and the game just kind of expects you to know who they are and care about them and not read their help as a deus ex machina (I’m going to talk about those in a bit), so that kind of undermines the standalone nature of the rest of the game. I personally think that’s okay, to be honest. I don’t think there’s a problem with things existing in a series and encouraging people to take in the whole series, while not making it impossible not to. I think that in a video game world where a lot of games are Final Fantasy or whatever, where the games aren’t really connected to each other, it’s cool that these two games are connected this way. And I think that doing that lets this sequel be really effective, because it really is a continuation of the themes and story from the first game, and a further destabilization of those themes too.
This paragraph is where the spoilers start. In the first game, the main character Neku is a special chosen one who has more powers than everyone else because God, called the Composer in the game, picked him as a proxy to play in a metagame against the game’s Conductor. In this game, Rindo is also a special chosen one who was chosen as a proxy for a game against the new Conductor, Shiba. Except that it turns out he was either chosen by or his choosing was hijacked by the game’s villain, an evil angel who has decided to destroy Shibuya because I guess he’s mad that God didn’t destroy it in the previous game. The idea of not only the idea of the in-game Game being flawed, but of the idea of the chosen one being chosen by the villain, is so interesting. Rindo has super special chosen one time travel powers that let him go back in time every time he screws up and do stuff again so that he can fix it, which is an interesting gameplay mechanic that I really like. But as the game comes to a close, you learn that Rindo using his powers is what’s actually causing the apocalypse the angel is here to create, because every time he used them something something temporal echoes and cognitive distortion, the game has a lot of terms that they just kind of use like they make sense, so whatever.
Anyway, all those things turn into a giant phoenix that tries to destroy the city and is the final boss, which is cool (especially when it dies and the characters all act like they’ve won even though it’s literally a phoenix; spoiler alert, it comes back to life). But what’s really cool is this hijacking of the chosen one story. Rindo is special because someone who wanted to destroy the city wanted him to be special, and honestly he’s right in spending the whole game not wanting to be special. It’s really compelling to watch him grow more comfortable with his leadership of his team and with his powers, only to have him realize at the end that he was responsible for everything that happened—which isn’t true, because the angel is responsible, and then Rindo has to come to terms with that. His emotional journey is really cool, I think. A lot of other characters have really good emotional arcs too, but I like Rindo’s a lot and he’s the main character, so it’s worth talking about.
The weirdest writing thing in the game, I think, is the sequence of deus ex machinas that play out throughout the endgame. You fight the second final boss (there are three) and then after you beat it, you lose in a cutscene, and literal light from heaven comes down and just kills the angel. Which, okay. Shibuya is saved, but all Rindo’s friends died in the fight, so it’s a bad ending. But then the game keeps happening, and Rindo is being sad in Shibuya a few days later, and then God shows up and offers him the chance to go back in time to try and save his friends, and then you go back and prepare to fight the third final boss. I found it a bit weird that there had to be a deus ex machina to undo the deus ex machina that happened ten minutes earlier, but hey, that’s how it goes. Then some more deus ex machinas happen when a bunch of characters from the first game show up to help so that you can finally beat the boss and the game. It’s really heartwarming and everything, because it’s so awesome to see everyone come together and triumph, but it’s also super out of nowhere. It’s just a bit weird when the rest of the game is so well structured.
But the coolest thing about the first game was the secret reports you could get in the postgame, in which a fallen angel talked about all the stuff that the different characters were doing behind the scenes, and it adds a whole other layer to the game that I think is awesome. I haven’t played all the postgame of Neo yet, but I’m betting the secret reports in this game are going to do something similar, so I’m really looking forward to that.
The last thing I do need to talk about it is the rampant heterosexuality in the game. A few of the characters, mostly Rindo’s best friend Fret, are really queer-coded in their design, their interest in fashion and the way they talk. But they’re all hyper-hetero, and Fret spends the whole game hitting on this hot lady called Kanon as if to prove that he’s really straight. And his relationship with her is super touching and sweet and I support it, but at first it felt like a bit of a slap when the first two hours of the game had seemed like they were heading in the direction of making him queer. He’s not the only character I get that vibe from, but it was the most obvious. And maybe that’s just me and my wishful thinking, or maybe it’s a cultural miscommunication, but either way it was really frustrating.
The trendiness of the characters is really funny to be honest, because nobody in real life would ever dress like that? But it’s possible that’s what’s responsible for me misunderstanding the game’s alignment on queer issues. I was worried when the sequel was announced because the promotional material looked like the fashion from this game was going to be the same as it was in the first one, which was super rooted in its time. And it was, but I found it didn’t bother me as much as it could have because only three years have passed in game even though it’s been way longer out of game. The games are super oriented on fashion and branding in a way that I find a bit uncomfortable, because supposedly the message is that anyone can be themselves is they imagine it enough, and being yourself is the best thing you can do, but being yourself in the context of the game is always “being really into a specific brand” and I just think it’s a bit of a sketchy message to send people when you say that you should fight the power and challenge authority but also that you should be yourself as defined by the marketing team of a clothing company. That’s why I said above that the system of the Game is a weak stand-in for neoliberal capitalism, because it’s really just a front for the actual game to sell a particular brand of neoliberal consumerist capitalism. And I mean, it’s a video game that’s sold for money by a corporation, so of course it is, but the messaging just feels a bit tricky here, and I’m not so sure how I feel about that aspect of it.
But I really liked Neo: The World Ends with You a lot, I think that it’s a really awesome sequel and a great game, the combat system is super interesting compared to other games, the writing is really solid and the characters are complex and interesting and always portrayed sympathetically, even when they sometimes make mistakes or are presented as villains. You really feel for all of them because they’re all trapped in a huge, uncaring system that’s using them as resources, and that’s a hard thing to make happen. The art is really cool and the music is miles better than in the first game, and it’s just all around a really fun game that’s more than worth playing. Just as long as you go into it know what it is, I think you’ll really enjoy it a lot too.